DI DRIVER BLOG: Alex Laughlin
NHRA Pro Stock isn’t only one of the most intricate and difficult classes to compete in within drag racing, but also any other kind of motorsports. Everything has to be perfect – there’s no “getting close”. From the gear-set in the transmission, the tire size and pressure within it, and engine RPM the motor is held up to when the car launches, it all has to be just right. And that’s not even getting into suspension and how the car, itself, works. All of these things have to work together to get the car off of the starting line as intended.
Once the car launches and the shift light comes on, it has to be shifted quick. These cars turn 10,500 RPM and if you shift early, you didn’t use your whole RPM range and therefore, gave up power. The same goes for shifting late; if you hit the rev limiter, the car loses its forward momentum and the weight transfers from the back of the car to the front and falls over. The shift light is set a couple hundred RPMs lower than where you want to shift because the motor is accelerating so rapidly. For example: The Rev limiter is set at 10,500 so we want to shift into the next gear at a perfect 10,499 RPM. The shift light flashes around 10,300 and by time my eyes see it, realize it, and my body reacts, I’m right there about to meet that 10,500 limiter. Every gear has to be shifted at the perfect time, keep the car straight, and drive it to the finish line. One mistake out of the 100+ procedures will dictate the win of the race or not; that’s the ugly part about the class. When we only have 6 seconds to race, there’s no room for error.
Racing in other autosports, like road racing, you can make mistakes and come back from them. You might hang a wheel off in the grass or spin in a turn, but still have the possibility to brush it off, work hard and fight to get back to the top. How many times in NASCAR or IndyCar have you seen a bad pit stop or someone move from the back of the pack to the front? With that said, more time and opportunity to improve also means more opportunity to make more mistakes. So some may argue that it all balances out.
I had the opportunity to spend some time with Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett last weekend at the NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey. We discussed some of the nuances between the type of car she drives, Top Fuel Dragster, and the one I drive in Pro Stock Car. When she drops a cylinder going down the track, the lack of force from that one single cylinder that’s out throws off the balance between each side. The force of the 4 cylinders from the strong side will overpower the side with only 3 cylinders and push the car across the track – mind boggling! Our Pro Stock cars have such a little amount of down force that once we get toward the end of the race track, air is actually coming under the car, making it lighter. We actually sometimes lose traction even at 200mph and let me tell ya, it’s not a great feeling. The Top Fuel cars like Leah drives have thousands of pounds of downforce across the car, keeping it planted to the track. While it’s all still relevant from her car to mine, there are some extreme differences. She asked me if I’d ever want to drive a fuel car and I explained that a dragster would certainly be an interest, but a Funny Car isn’t so much.
In my next blog, I’ll discuss how the decisions are made and what all goes into making the right calls for the car versus the track and weather conditions. We’ll get pretty deep and technical.